From spoken to written, the origin of Matthew’s Gospel
Producing the Gospels
Based on a monochrome photograph, this is an attempt to re-imagine this lost painting.
Garavaggio has, as have other artists, chosen to portray an angel alongside St. Matthew. By depicting the angel guiding Matthew’s hand, the artist seeks to emphasize the divine inspiration of the Gospel’s content.
The frequent portrayal, of St. Matthew accompanied by an angel, comes from a tradition of associating each of the gospel writers with one of the four spiritual beings that, in the Bible, intimately attended the throne of God. Portrayed as four living creatures, one was like an ox, one like a lion, one like an eagle and one with the face of a man (Ezek 1:10, Rev 4:7). The human faced creature, was the one most often associated with Matthew.
Eventually, some of those who had witnessed Jesus’ miraculous signs and listened to his teaching, or had received the particulars by word of mouth, began to commit the details to writing. Amongst those early documents was Matthew’s Gospel. Similar teaching also found its way into the other synoptic gospels, Mark and Luke, and non-canonical works such as the Gospel of Thomas.
It is likely that Jesus delivered the Sermon in Aramaic, the language of his countrymen, though, many would have been equally conversant with Greek. Early traditions suggest that an Aramaic version of Matthew’s Gospel preceded the Greek version with which we are now familiar (for more on this see Chapter 1 of The Emmaus view).
The three synoptic gospels share a similar view (or synoptic) of Jesus’ ministry. However, for most of the Church’s history, its academics accepted the tradition that the apostle Matthew produced the first Gospel. Matthew’s Gospel, being also the longest of the synoptic gospels, was therefore given prominence over the others.
It would be nice if the study of internal evidence could confirm that Matthew was written first, but the evidence is ambiguous, with each synoptic gospel appearing, to some extent, dependent upon the other two. The conundrum of sorting out their relationships has become notorious amongst bible scholars, who refer to it as the synoptic problem.
Several hypotheses have been advanced as solutions to the problem of what order the synoptic gospels were written. The traditional, or Augustinian, solution placed Matthew as the first Gospel, Matthew then influenced Mark and both influenced Luke. Several other solutions have since been suggested, but in the eighteenth century two in particular began to find favour amongst academics:
- a two-source hypothesis, in which Matthew was derived from Mark’s Gospel and a hypothetical body of material known as Q (short for ‘Quelle,’ the German for source)
- the Griesbach hypothesis, which places Matthew first, derives Luke from Matthew and then Mark from Luke.
The two-source hypothesis became very popular in the twentieth century, but, as its under-girding assumptions come under increasing scrutiny, that popularity seems to have past its zenith. Meanwhile, the Griesbach hypothesis, which it formerly eclipsed, is now regaining ground in a variant known as the two-gospel hypothesis.
The two-source hypothesis requires that an editor, probably in the early post-apostolic church, crafted the Sermon from a range of previously unconnected sayings. Yet, the nature of the Sermon, with its coherent and multi-layered message, targeted at an authentically Jewish audience and closely addressing the particular circumstances of Jesus’ earliest ministry, would seem to argue strongly against this. By contrast, the two-gospel hypothesis requires no such process of fragmentation and later re-integration. It also allows the Sermon to pass into Matthew’s Gospel as the single entity that it appears to be.
Adopting the Griesbach hypothesis, a possible, but hypothetical, scenario might be as follows:
- Matthew wrote in Aramaic for the benefit of the priests, who converted in large numbers around 31 C.E. (Acts 6:7);
- Luke was tasked with providing an account of Jesus' life to submit in evidence to Rome, to establish whether The Way counted as a branch of Judaism, and whether its members should therefore enjoy the existing benefits that Judaism had negotiated with Rome;
- Either Matthew, whose work as a tax-collector would have required fluency in Greek, or some other bi-lingual disciple/s, produced a Greek paraphrase of the original work to assist Luke;
- Luke then edited his gospel for his target audience (Roman officialdom):
- dropping the politically-nuanced Sermon on the Mount (which might be seen as the inauguration of a new movement)
- including the Sermon on the Plain, which neatly serves to distract attention from the absence of the Sermon on the Mount, by leaving people to suspect it was the same event (as it has done for centuries). ;
- omitting other comments that might be seen as directed against Rome;
- preserving as much of the Sermon’s content as possible, by drawing upon the same, or similar, material from other periods within Jesus’ ministry (this was an important step, as many of the Sermon's memorable teachings circulated widely at an early period, so their absence might lead to awkward questions;
- carefully taking account of any apostolic teaching that might already be circulating in Roman, e.g. through Peter, so as not to appear inconsistent;
- Following Luke's efforts with his Gospel, he then wrote a continuation, The Acts of the Apostles, for submission as evidence, this time probably for Paul’s trial in Rome (circa 60-62 C.E. and the point at which Acts finishes);
- Mark then made use of Luke's Gospel in the formulation of his own, with, if tradition is to be believed, the inclusion of material preached by Peter;
- As the gentile church expanded, the Greek version of Matthew found its way into the public domain and became the preferred version of that gospel.